Two Special Needs Dogs Get a Lift to a Loving Home

August 15, 2018

Among the victims of severe weather that battered western Kentucky last February was a pair of two-year-old German Shepherd-mixes. Stranded on a hill and marooned by rising floodwaters, the dogs were rescued by Good Samaritans who drove them to a local shelter.

“They were very scared, and trembling and whining,” recalls Kathy Baird, Animal Service Coordinator at the Union County Animal Shelter in Morganfield, Kentucky. “Neither knew how to walk on a leash; we had to carry them in and out for over a week before we could transition to leash walks.” 

badger and bear

Left: Badger (formerly Bert) with Bear (formerly Ernie). Right: Badger. 

Shelter staff knew that finding a home together for two large, bonded dogs—whom Kathy named Ernie and Bert­—would be challenging. On top of that, they discovered Ernie was blind and Bert had limited vision. Both also tested positive for heartworm disease. 

“I began to get discouraged at their future prospects,” admits Kathy. “But spending just 10 minutes with them always renewed my hope. I think they knew we wanted to help them.” 

“They quickly began to trust staff and follow our voices,” says Kathy. “They loved attention and each other, and even with all their challenges, seemed to love life.”

Kathy set about finding a partner shelter willing to take two dogs with medical and physical concerns. At the annual Kentucky Animal Care & Control Conference in Louisville in mid-March, she spread the word about the pair, and soon received a call from the Kentucky Humane Society, an ASPCA Relocation partner which specializes in hard to place animals with disabilities. Soon after, KHS earmarked Ernie and Bert for transport to the Humane Society of West Michigan (HSWM) in Grand Rapids.

The ASPCA WaterShed Animal Fund Relocation team also jumped into action to tackle logistics for the dogs’ transport. The team verified that both dogs met the Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ transport guidelines for animals infected with heartworm, as well as the State of Michigan’s guidelines. A volunteer then drove the dogs to KHS where they boarded the transport vehicle to Michigan.

On March 28, exactly one month and a day after their rescue, Ernie and Bert arrived in Grand Rapids. HSWM staff soon realized that Ernie relied heavily on Bert to help guide him and give him confidence. Bert, playful and independent, would check on Ernie frequently. 

“We didn’t really view these dogs as challenging,” says Namiko Ota-Noveskey, Behavior Specialist at HSWM, which successfully places special needs animals. “Both were social with people and other dogs. They just needed some medical help and a home together. We made sure they had a good quality of life until we found a special someone who would feel a connection.”

That special someone turned out to be Eric S., a recreation therapist for dementia patients at a local hospital. Eric came across Bert and Ernie’s profiles while browsing HSWM’s website, and soon discovered the two were “a package deal.” He called his fiancé Tiffany, who told him to “go for it” and adopt the pair. Ernie and Bert would join the couple’s four-year-old Beagle-mix, Tod. 

“What’s one more?” asks Eric, who admits that his profession and experience working with people with cognitive and intellectual challenges influenced his decision to adopt the two special needs dogs. 

Badger and Tod

Left: Badger playing with Tod. Right: Tod enjoying some playtime in the snow. 

In their new home, Ernie and Bert are now called Bear (for his love of hiding and hibernating) and Badger (who seeks Bear out and won’t stop until he finds him). 

“We meet them where they are, on their terms, and not where we want them to be,” Eric explains.

Patience is always crucial in raising special needs pets. Little things, like making sure the dogs are not underfoot or blocking a busy doorway, must be taken into account. “Everything just takes more time,” says Eric. 

Though unable to associate visual cues with commands, Bear is inquisitive and eager to please. Badger, though stubborn, picks up on things quickly and knows “sit.” Both dogs are also learning house manners, which includes staying off of the couch unless invited. 

Eric and Tiffany followed through with Bear and Badger’s heartworm treatment, restricting their activity for several weeks, a challenge for the rambunctious duo. Both dogs are due to be retested in six months.

“It really took a village to achieve their success,” says Kathy, who explains that Union County animals are routinely transported to shelter partners in other states by volunteers. “Without our volunteers, these opportunities would be missed.”

“We may take two steps forward and one step back,” says Eric of the duo’s limitations, “But they will adapt—and we’ll help them reach their true potential.”